Torqued: The Criminal Element in Aviation

 - August 1, 2019, 7:20 AM

I’ve been thinking about writing this article for several months, ever since we invited a special agent from the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General to speak to our students at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology about the role of his office. One of the courses I co-teach at Vaughn College is aviation safety, and the OIG has a little-known but critical role in the aviation safety equation: investigating and helping U.S. Attorneys prosecute criminals whose conduct can affect air safety. Among its functions, the OIG investigates aviation crimes and works with the FBI and other federal, state, and local law enforcement to prosecute those crimes. According to the OIG’s website, one of its roles is “conducting criminal, civil, and administrative investigations of fraud and a variety of other allegations affecting DOT, its operating administrations, programs, and grantees [grant funds].” Among its top priorities are crimes affecting public safety.

The students who heard the outstanding presentation that day were surprised at the number of criminal statutes that apply to aviation, but more than anything, they—and even some of the faculty—were shocked by the types of crimes committed by people who should have been trustworthy aviation professionals, some of which occurred in their own local area. Their reaction got me thinking that maybe others are not aware of the criminal statutes that apply to some aspects of aviation or of the criminal element that lurks among us. And if we’re not aware of these criminal statutes, we may unwittingly get ourselves in more trouble than we anticipate. And if we’re not aware of the criminal element, perhaps we’re not doing enough to protect ourselves from them, when possible.

Pilots Prosecuted

One of the cases that hit particularly close to home for our students was the case of a pilot on Long Island—not too far from where our students do their flight training—who was providing flight instruction without a certified flight instructor (CFI) certificate and falsifying student pilot logbook entries. This pilot pled guilty this past January and is awaiting sentencing. Our students—many of whom are in training to become commercial pilots—were particularly shocked that someone could do this and get away with it for so long. 

As it turns out, this was not an isolated case. Over just this past year alone, other pilots were similarly prosecuted for providing flight instruction to unsuspecting students without holding a CFI. A Florida man was sentenced to seven years in prison for a fraudulent scheme involving student pilot logbook certifications; a Mississippi pilot who gave unauthorized flight instruction for two years was sentenced in August 2018 to six months home confinement, three years supervised release, 100 hours of community service and barred from working in the aviation industry in any capacity. 

In addition to pilots providing flight instruction without CFIs, a number of other pilots were prosecuted in just the last 12 months for flying aircraft without holding appropriate airmen’s certificates. Flying an aircraft without a required certificate is a crime. Those prosecuted include a Massachusetts man accused of flying a helicopter on more than 50 flights after the FAA revoked his pilot certificate; a former airline pilot who was sentenced to 15 months in jail in Vermont for flying after the FAA revoked his certificate for using an aircraft to transport more than 50 kilos of marijuana; a Florida man who was sentenced to 36 months of probation for “making false statements related to operating a commercial aircraft without a valid airman’s certificate”; another Florida man who was sentenced to three years’ probation and barred from any aviation-related entity for operating more than 100 sightseeing flights without a commercial certificate. These are just some of the cases from the past year.

Non-flying Crimes

And pilots are not the only ones involved in criminal activity. In May of this year, parts brokers in New Jersey were sentenced for a four-year scheme in which they took scrapped jet engine parts, took steps to conceal that they had been scrapped, and made sham sales to a company they controlled so that the parts could be sold to unsuspecting operators. The scheme was disrupted before the parts could be sold for installation in jet engines. Sentencing included five years’ probation and an order of restitution totaling more than $4 million. 

In another case, a repair station executive in South Florida was sentenced for bribing an FAA inspector to use his official position to “secure FAA’s approval for repairs of sophisticated avionics equipment and commercial cockpit windows.” She was sentenced to five years’ probation and had to pay restitution of over $711,000. The inspector is now a former FAA inspector. 

In another case involving bribing an FAA inspector, four helicopter company employees in Guam and an FAA inspector were charged in a conspiracy that included giving the inspector a free Taylorcraft in return for his agreement to “sign, issue and reissue airworthiness certificates for several helicopters…without inspecting them.” The FAA inspector pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing; the helicopter employees have been indicted but not convicted. The investigation of the company began after a crash that killed the pilot. The helicopter company gave the FAA logbooks with falsified data. According to the OIG, for perhaps as many as 20 years the company used aircraft that had been “destroyed, scrapped, or otherwise deemed not airworthy—and concealed these facts in documents and records submitted to the FAA.”

A similar case involves allegations against a parts broker—including falsely presenting himself as an Airframe and Powerplant mechanic although he never held an A&P certificate—for attempting to sell an aircraft bought at an insurance auction without disclosing its damage history. The status of those allegations is unclear, but the individual pled guilty to other unrelated charges and was sentenced to 10 years in jail in Arizona. 

In another case, an FAA designated airworthiness representative was sentenced to six months home confinement, fined $5,000, and forfeited more than $38,000 for participating in a scheme in which he would certify aircraft parts as airworthy without physically inspecting them.

Among other criminal cases involving aviation: a former airline pilot was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $10,000 for operating two Alaska Airlines flights while under the influence of alcohol; several involve pilots falsifying medical records; a Florida Aviation Medical Examiner pled guilty to fraudulently certifying thousands of medical certifications for private and commercial pilots—with some of those pilots not passing material portions of their medicals; several cases against people for pointing lasers at aircraft; an airline president and state airport commission executive arrested for, among other things, misusing federal money; and even a parachute rigger for falsely writing in a logbook that he “inspected, serviced, and repacked an emergency parachute.”

Two recent criminal cases involve drone pilots: one was charged in California with flying over two NFL games where flights were restricted by a TFR and another was charged in Georgia with owning and operating an unregistered drone weighing more than 0.55 pounds and for possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. He is alleged to have intended to use the drone to fly the contraband to a Georgia state prison.

These cases have been criminally prosecuted. You can access the OIG’s website to find more if you’re interested. Hopefully, being aware that criminal statutes exist will make those in aviation more wary of violating federal aviation regulations and more careful about checking out the credentials of those they deal with. As a last point, if we haven’t learned this from current events, learn it now: lying to federal investigators is a crime. While you have the right to remain silent, you do not have the right to lie on federally required documents or to federal agents. The latter includes FAA records and FAA inspectors.